Courses in language for specific purposes

A while back I got an email from Tommy who asked a very interesting question. I thought it would be good to try to put my response into words here.

Dr. Kelm, speaking of plants – do you know of any interdisciplinary courses/studies involving language/culture and ethnobotany?  I know Brazil has such unique flora, many plants and trees that make their way into cosmetics, medicines, foods, etc all over the world.  My impression is that of the identified species, many have multiple, indigenous names.  From a university classroom perspective, do you think there would be any value in a course about plants and natural resources of Brazil, language and culture, or is this kind of vague?

Basically I believe that students learn what is interesting to them and block out everything else. From a “university classroom perspective” years ago I noticed how we often “force” students to take classes in literature or linguistics, even when they would really like to learn a language for other reasons.  Often they sign up for classes “because that was all that was available.”  As a matter of fact I made this same mistake this year when I offered the course in business culture for students in the Salvador study abroad program.  Most were not really weren’t interested in business and I ended up having to modify the course.  A university language course with an ethnobotany focus would have the same challenges and issues.  That is to say, it is probably too narrow of a focus to be of interest to a wide range of students.

So what’s the solution at a university?  Offer courses where all of the students choose their area of focus.  That is, some students would focus their attention on ethnobotany, others music, others medicine, others sports, others business, etc.  Over the years I have “successfully” accomplished this about 2 or 3 times.  It was in an advanced grammar course where large chunks of the student’s activities focused on personal projects in their areas of interest.  I remember especially one student who learned all about polishing and cutting semi precious stones in Portuguese (she had previously purchased stones in Minas Gerais) While taking my class she was also enrolled in a geology course in stone cutting.

The honest answer:  The honest answer is probably that some topics lend themselves to personal learning more than to organized classroom situations.  This is one of those instances.  I’ll bet that a personal tutor and some focused practice would result in better learning than a course.

Hope that helps…



2 Responses to “Courses in language for specific purposes”

  1. Tommy Says:

    Thankyou for your response! I see what you mean about the organized classroom designed for a wide range of students…

    I studied comparative literature so I was lucky to a little bit of freedom as to what I researched, but the language/grammar courses I did take were kind of rigid. During my first two years of Japanese, I knew nothing but the cold grammar, and neither pursued on my own nor was encouraged to pursue any particularly interesting or inspiring aspect of the language and culture. I still believe that music should have been integrated from day 1. If music is a kind of predecessor of language, maybe it can be something language students of all academic backgrounds can share and enjoy easily.

  2. Orlando Says:

    If you are interested in language and music, here’s a book that might give you some ideas. It is entitled Language is Music by Susanna Zaraysky:

    Myself, I owe a tremendous debt to Roberto Carlos, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, and Maria Bethânia for my Portuguese pronunciation. How many hours have I sung along with them!

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